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MTV’s “Juvies”

stalvis Icon Posted by Silja J.A. Talvi

February 10th, 2007

The popularity of one of the longest-running shows on television, COPS, says a lot about how fascinated Americans continue to be with “law and order,” and the sensational aspects of what happens when people suffer from mental illness, get addicted to drugs, abuse themselves and others, and/or take out their misdirected rage (including misogyny, homophobia, and racism) in any number of ways.

I actually find it nearly impossible to watch that show for more than a few minutes at as time because I’ve already seen so much of that stuff in my life, up close and personal, and so find it rather nauseating to participate in the spectacle of it all. (Although I continue to wonder, with my dark sense of humor, about why nearly every man on that show has his shirt off when he’s taken down. Is it some kind of primal reaction to threat? Who knows! One can only speculate … )

A new show about the criminal justice system on cable television, however, truly has piqued my interest.

MTV’s Juvies, represents the first time that most viewers will have been introduced to the reality of day-to-day life in American juvenile halls.

The kids on this show are brought in for a variety of “offenses,” including, in the case of many of the girls, for the “crime” of running away from home. It’s hearbreaking to see the cases of the girls and boys who are trying to liberate themselves, psychologically and physically, from clearly dysfunctional homes. Sadly, some of them are abandoned by their parents once they are finally arrested and placed in juvie. Most of the other kids are in on petty offenses. Others have been ratted out or abandoned by friends who ran off the scene once something bad happened.

This isn’t so much a question of “innocence” or “guilt” but of the kinds of situations that many teenagers get into when parents are not a regular, healthy presence in their lives, or they get into the mix with other kids for whom that is the case. Sometimes, their behavior is just based on that kind of teenage, “indestructible” hubris that adolescent psychologists and psychiatrists have heem writing and talking about for quite some time. There are lots of ways to “treat” that kind of issue, but locking up a kid is hardly at the top of anybody’s list–that is, anybody who actually understands that this degree of punishment tends to excarerbate, not improve, a kid’s already skewed and/or unhealthy mindset.

But what the show actually excels at, whether it intends to or not, is showing the sheer monotony, Orwellian sterility, and ultimately dehumanizing process of juvenile detention. We watch children being shuffled off to court hearings in arm and leg shackles, all walking with their heads down, doing the penguin-like walk that hand-and-ankle-cuffing bring about.

Visits from parents are a particularly hard thing to watch, because the parents are allowed no physical contact whatsoever. A violation gets the kid eight hours in isolation. No hand holding allowed because “the parents might slip something to the kids.”

These are children. Need I say again? Children, who are at a pivotal point in their adolescent development, being locked down and treated as though they were hardened adult criminals.

Yes, they’re in trouble, to varying degrees. But in the absence of intensive intervention, counseling services, group support, what we see is the harsh, brutal truth of what most of our juvenile detention centers have “evolved” into: Cold, concrete rooms with bare-bones mattresses; page after page after page of rules; humiliating scrub downs with Lysol and body searches; and severe punishment in isolation if someone “talks back” too much.

Does all of this scare the kids? Of course. You can see the shame and humiliation on the faces of even the “toughest” of kids. But once we’re allowed to listen in on some of their conversations, we get to see them for who they are. Victims and survivors. Kids who pray together before court hearings. Kids who simply want to have healthy relationships with their parents, but can’t figure out how to do so. Misfits and rebels, in some cases, who just want to be left alone and express themselves, although they may be doing so currently in unhealthy ways.

If you haven’t seen this show, I actually recommend you check it out. Check out some of the comments and judgments made by the primary judge and prosecutor, and check out the dynamics between these kids and the people incarcerating them. At this point, the only woman who deserves commendation of any kind is the intake officer, who actually sees and responds to the kid in front of her without judgment, and, so far, without apparent regard to the color of their skin.

To be clear: I don’t recommend this show because it represents how we should be treating kids, but I recommend it so that you can see how inhumane the whole process of juvenile incarceration has become.

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